Student-Professor Dialog: Creativity and Society

The following is a series of (ongoing) exchanges with my professor on the subject of creativity and innovation in society. I felt that it was worthwhile sharing the dialog. 

April 17th
Hello Professor,

I apologize if my comment today came off as a tirade or diatribe. That wasn’t my intention. You commented that our generation may be a bit cynical, and that may be true, but that’s not how I like to think about my attitude. Instead, I like to think of myself as being critical, specifically a critical thinker who criticizes and seeks to deviate from the status quo in favor of gleaning new insights and gaining new potential solutions. I believe our problems are a result of a society who seeks perpetuating the status quo, similar to the silo or echo chamber effect. I believe this is a result of people who willingly accept ideas, problems, and solutions presented to them, or that reinforce and reaffirm their beliefs, rather than inquire for themselves, critically challenge their beliefs, and generate their own solutions, be it through reflective thinking or collaborative dialog.

That being said, I love your class and I think you’re a fantastic professor who is doing great things. I’ve had a passion for creativity my whole life, and it’s a pleasure to explore the topic in your classes. As a result of the many readings and discussions presented throughout the semester I’ve arrived at a few revelatory insights that I’d like to share with you.

First, I believe that creativity is a product of struggle, of problems and the suffering it produces, and the passion it generates when people apply their “will” to overcome that struggle. Nietzsche has been a tremendous influence for re-framing how I conceptualize the human condition as a continual overcoming. I learned that the root of creativity in Latin is creo, which translates as “belief” or “produce, choose, put into existence”, and that the root for creo in Indo-Proto-European is cor- which translated as “heart”, as in coronary or cordial. Hence my conviction that all creativity is an enterprise of heartfelt passion generated by struggle, or problems and suffering, to overcome circumstance, whether they are imposed by nature’s absolute values or society’s relative values.

Throughout time the greatest civilizations collapsed at the peak of their opulence, the pinnacle of their immoderate greatness. I attribute this to the fact that these civilizations, among other things, grew increasingly complacent with their level of comfort, and as a result experienced none of the struggle necessary to diagnose problems and apply creativity and innovation for their resolution. I observe this in our current culture where imitation and conformity are the rule, where everyone talks of freedom, equality, and autonomy but it is very rare to witness these qualities being demonstrated. Authenticity and autonomy, in my opinion, are absolutely necessary for acknowledging and individuating problems in our world. The Greek prefix root of these words is autos meaning “self”, and the respective suffixes are hentes meaning “doing” or “being”, and nomos meaning “law” or “the structured ordering of experience”.

The greatest creators, innovators, and thinkers, I argue, operated outside the norm, deviated from convention, and existed on the periphery of society. They acknowledged that if you do what everybody else is doing, you’ll get what everybody is getting. As a result they lived according to their own being or doing, their own law, and solved problems no one else acknowledged or saw. I think of William James who said “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” As well as Schopenhauer who said “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see. With people with only modest ability, modesty is mere honesty; but with those who possess great talent, it is hypocrisy.” In this way we see that it’s not what we look at that counts, but what we see. Hence da Vinci’s reply to the secret of his creative and inventive genius, “saper vedere” or “to know how to see”.

That being said, my comment today in class arose from my latent frustrations regarding our society. Politics is a touchy subject because if affects everyone. I have a desire for people to critically engage in things that matter most, specifically the preservation of our freedom, equality, and autonomy, rather than indulge in the mundane and mainstream. But it seems that most would rather appeal to authority, the status quo, or convention, and acquiesce to empty political rhetoric propagated by the “superiors” rather than looking at the facts and coming up with their own opinions. That is what a democracy with cognizant and active citizens should embody.

Once again, thanks for all that you do. I hope this email has found you well, and that I articulated my thoughts with enough clarity, and I look forward to talking with you more. Also, here is a link referencing the phenomenon of inequality and creativity I mentioned today in class, titled The Inequality Puzzle in U.S. Cities by Florida. Thanks again.

Sincerest Regards,

X

April 17th
X:

Thank you for this very thoughtful and smart email message. I would love to talk to you more about some of these ideas.

A few very quick responses.  Yes, struggle is a major component of creativity (part of the theme of creativity and crisis) and individual passion and the authentic desire to improve a situation are the fuel that drives the creativity train.  As a sociologists I would say the tracks are not of the creators own making.   Society structures what we take to be a legitimate problem in need of a creative solution. So, creative people certainly operate outside norms but they are also bound by those norms and it is incumbent upon the scholar/critic to see the creator as both heroic and also as constrained and to understand how these two facts interact to produce, limit, or otherwise influence creative development.

I also agree with the relationship between complacency and creativity, although I think you need to acknowledge that one man’s complacency is another man’s struggle. So, the piece that you need to take into account is power.  If the complacent have absolute power, then you get decline. But, if the powerless and the outsiders have some access to politics, resources, power, then you can have great undercurrents of creativity even while the fat cats get drunk.

Finally, I was going to write and thank you for offering your insights today in class about politics. I agree with your points and don’t think you were delivering a tirade.   Many people are dissatisfied with the state of our political system and its capacity to deliver innovative solutions to our problems. As you suggest, old ideologies crowd out critical reflection and creative response.  Both parties are guilty.    My own opinion is that rhetoric matters and when one party has, for more than 3 decades, told the American people that we can not collectively solve problems and that our government (which is us) is always the problem (and never the solution), then we have stacked the deck against tackling the biggest problems of our times.   The market can facilitate solutions but it does not “believe” anything — it is through politics and democracy that we decide what type of society we want to live in and how to achieve these goals.   By turning a people against its government, I believe, we have undermined the process that we depend on for creatively engaging collective problems.  Single creative individuals acting alone without the tracks (to refer back to the earlier metaphor) can not solve our problems.  Government is part of the process of setting down tracks (not the only part).   As a “creative pragmatist,” it is hard to watch political tactics (the smart use of rhetoric) succeed at electing candidates while undermining their capacity to govern at the same time.

Sorry for my diatribe!

Onward,

Y

April 24rd,
Hello Professor,

I appreciate your response! We could talk for days– and I’d love every minute of it!  I have some thoughts regarding society’s role as a facilitator of change and revolutionary progress. I’d love to hear any feedback or insights you could provide.

Regarding society and creative change: in my opinion institutional structures, such as government or education or religion or corporations, are economies of scale for ideas (values), and as such they are subject to organizational inertia. I believe as these structures grow, they reinforce themselves on top of themselves through a process of normalization, specifically as a means of increasing cohesion and improving efficiency. That is, the structure self-perpetuates itself due to various self-preservation mechanisms explained in psychology and sociology, like herding, cognitive bias, the echo chamber/ silo effect, etc.

The consequence of these structures and the “typological” normalization they demand is that the structure begins to crystallize and become increasingly rigid. Deviations from the structure’s systematic process of normalization are looked down upon and rarely rewarded. What is rewarded is conformity to the “standards” typifying the accepted structural norms. In the end the structure, say as cultural custom or societal convention, becomes the largest barrier of change and inhibitor of progress. These may manifest as laws, or standardized testing, or rituals, or work processes– any formalization based on a set of premises or principles dictated by the structure’s authority or gatekeepers. Initially these premises may or may not reflect changes within the natural and social environment, but as time goes on and the structure grows, change inevitably takes place and I’d argue that these premises become increasingly abstract and irrelevant to the changing demands within the empirical landscape.

From what I observe in creativity and innovation on a sociological level, and evolution on a biological level, change occurs organically; it begins with a single individual, a single gene. Perhaps environmental demands cause the retention of a swath of genes, similar to the way societal demands cause a retention of a group of individuals, like those witnessed in collaborative circles, like the Fugitives, or the Vienna Circle and the like. This bottom-up population thinking contrasts with top-down typological thinking. Change can take place with the top down typological thinking (Platonic), but it must work within the bounds of its established premises. Eventually demands change to such a degree that premises need to be discarded in order to usher in revolutionary change.

That being said, I’m skeptical of institutional structures. I believe that so long as they represent the dynamic will of free thinking individuals who seek collaboration for mutually beneficial ends, these institutions work on their behalf. But because of organizational inertia and the mechanisms of normalization that functionally preserve the status quo, I do not believe that the governing authority representing institutions are capable of addressing the changing demands in the long run. This is especially the case when those in authority are the pinnacle product of the normalization, embodying the most abstract conventions established within the structure (culture).

However, my biggest frustration does not lie so much with those in positions of authority as it does with the individuals embedded within the population. Normalization has occurred to such a degree that abstract theory and “ideals” become the end for society, resulting in a populous devoid of independent thought, lacking a critical consciousness. We have denounced personal experience, and the accompanying opinions about that experience, in favor of societal standards to such a magnitude that people have grown blind: incapable of sensual inductive thought. Instead they defer to authority, to ideals, to norms for their answers, like sheep.

There is a dark corollary to this story that manifests symptomatically throughout society as a cultural malaise. When the individual experience is oppressed to such a degree that authenticity becomes the exception rather than the rule, people become sick. In proportion to their openness to change, I believe societies manufacture mental illness: body dysmorphia, depression, anorexia, substance abuse, criminal activities, and the list goes on. Other examples are increased emphasis on grades and testing rather than learning and understanding, an absence of mutually vested dialog between teachers and students, and lack of communication in general as people defer to authorities or professionals to solve problems that they should otherwise work out with others within the relationship of their context.

I hope I’m not being too harsh. I honestly and earnestly want the best for people, my fellow man and society at large.

I read two articles recently that have embodied much of my thoughts on the matter and I’ve been eager to share them with you to hear your thoughts. One is titled The Creative Monopoly and discusses a lecture by Peter Thiel at Stanford. Relating back to my thoughts on society as a self-perpetrating structure, the article discusses the negative flip side of competition and proposes an alternative approach for creating value within the context of business and markets. I recommend checking out Peter Thiel’s lecture notes linked in the article. The other article is titled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams. It relates to my sentiment that ideals and social norms become a means rather than an end.

I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. I’m eager to hear your thoughts. I know your probably pretty busy grading papers and what not, so don’t feel any pressure. If you’re available, I’ll be around until graduation and would like to catch up and listen to some of your thoughts on various subjects I’ve been thinking and writing about, such as sociology, creativity, and the like. Thanks again!

Sincerest Regards,

X

South Park and Open Society: A Response

An essay I recently wrote. Loved reading about Karl Popper, didn’t really like the essay.

South Park and Open Society: A Response

            When examining a democratic society there should be ample evidence of open expression, where ideas can be examined and critiqued by the people as a whole. Professors David Curtis and Gerald Erion investigate this evidence in their essay South Park and the Open Society by presenting the controversial cartoon show South Park. South Park gained popularity in the nineties, and has since built the reputation of parading society’s most controversial topics for the public eye. Curtis and Erion provide examples of how the open examination found in South Park was intentionally designed to exercise and preserve the health of liberal democracy. To support their case and qualify the importance of an open society, the authors cite twentieth century political philosopher Karl Popper and his critique of totalitarianism, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            In the opening paragraphs of their essay, Curtis and Erion reference media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s position that many social criticisms are intentionally interwoven into seemingly harmless entertainment mediums and serve to illustrate the fundamental principles of democratic philosophy at work (para 1).  South Park, they instance, does this explicitly by portraying its characters as ‘overzealous political activists’. The show openly offers up caricatures of extremism on the right and left for ridicule and derision. Because South Park finds no person or subject taboo, it has been constantly targeted for censorship and cancelation. Curtis and Erion believe that the creator’s decision to allow open discussion of such extremism places them in a position safe from the extremists who threaten to shut down the show.

            While South Park may come off as a crass cartoon filled with crude humor and ‘tasteless’ jokes, authors Curtis and Erion create convincing parallels between serious social and political gestalts that allow for deeper considerations of South Parks methods of free expression. What has protected South Park from much of this ridicule is that by silencing the shows message, many people would effectively be silencing their own. What lends credibility to the show is that it rests on the ideals of open society that are needed for critique and criticisms. It is just as natural that the show is a critic that it is producing critics.

            Curtis and Erion cite South Park cocreators Trey Parkers and Matt Stone in a PBS interview as they remark on the importance of openly recognizing that people screaming on both sides of an issue are the same people, and that it is ‘OK’ to be in the middle and laugh at both of them (para 3). What is paramount here is that these extremists don’t stifle the message of one or the other. Curtis and Erion refer to Karl Poppers principle of intolerance for intolerance to support Parker and Stone’s position (para 14). This principle emphasizes what Popper saw as a necessity in a democratic society in order to ensure open discussion on all subjects that call for critique and lead to progress. While the creators may not intentionally have society’s best interest at heart, they are most definitely furthering the healthy process of examining controversial subjects so that progressive ideas can be exchanged.

            When looking at the heart of this type of free expression in action, twentieth century scientific and politic philosopher Karl Popper provides the best framework for examining the system. As a major proponent of liberal democracy, Popper championed the notion of open society while criticizing the controls of government and customary myths perpetuating closed societies.  

            In order to avoid being subject to criticism from one extremist group or another, the creators of South Park opt to bash all sides, playing it safe in the middle ground. Referring to the remarks of the co-creators about the importance of extremism being expressed, Curtis and Erion find evidence of Poppers open society framework in the countless characters of South Park who openly embody this extremism and portray stereotypes of all kinds. Each of the main caricatures of SouthPark, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, encapsulate characterized beliefs within our culture.

            Through the character Cartman, the obnoxious overweight authoritarian, the co-creators exhibit the abhorrent stereotypes associated with the right wing fanaticism (para 11). Curtis and Erion describe the qualities and character defects that Cartman poignantly displays in characterizing ‘un-democratic’ conservatives. He has no issue berating anyone with his foul mouth and fascist opinions and most often takes his anger out on Kenny, a character that best represents the poorer class.

            With his coat covering his mouth and inhibiting recognizable speech, Kenny’s role usually consists of random muffles here and there, followed by his eventual death in most episodes. His lack of speech is similar to the lack of voice and influence within the poorer class. His regular deaths, and the utter lack of concern his friends share when he dies, represents the constant struggle within the lower classes that is often overlooked or ignored as a whole.

            With just as much ease, Curtis and Erion reference the characters identified with the extreme political left. An episode with their teacher, Mr. Mackey, portrays the hypocrisy of the watered-down leftists as his attempts to get the students to stay away from drugs lead to his own addiction.

            For middle ground the creators introduce Stan to exemplify the every day American middle class Christian populist. Along with Kyle, they represent an open and diplomatic approach to problems which allows the audience to receive him easily. While similar to Stan, Kyle is Jewish and embodies the prejudices as a minority.       

            The friendship between these four not only illustrates the volatile dynamics within American culture as they interact, but creates a satirical stage as they encounter other residents and extremists within the show that demonstrate extreme beliefs and opinions. What makes the show so popular is how these characters encounter these extreme ideas and the scenarios they contain. As an audience we witness our own behaviors, biases and prejudices exhibited through the characters.

            Curtis and Erion present convincing evidence in their essay South Park and the Open Society that South Park creators Parker and Stone share Karl Poppers political philosophy of an open society. By actively identifying and discussing the extremism on all sides, they offer themselves up as an extreme, and legitimize an important stake in open discussions. If Popper were alive to witness South Park on the air, he would rest assure that the health of American Democracy is alive and well.